Miss. High Court Denies Punitive Award Of Couple's Katrina Claim

NU Online News Service, Nov. 19, 3:53 p.m. EST

A Pascagoula, Miss. couple will not be getting nearly $600,000 they were awarded by a Jackson County jury for attorneys' fees, expenses and emotional distress related to their Hurricane-Katrina lawsuit against USAA, the state's Supreme Court has ruled.

The home of retired Navy Admiral James Lisanby and his wife, Gladys, was severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. USAA provided the couple with homeowners insurance but concluded that most of the damage was caused by storm surge, a peril not included in a standard homeowners policy.

USAA paid the Lisanbys about $46,350 and the couple filed a complaint against the insurer. After the trial a jury awarded the Lisanbys about $909,640 in compensatory damages, which included $86,000 for emotional distress. It also gave the couple about $302,920 for attorneys' fees and about $211,100 for litigation expenses.

The Supreme Court opinion written by Justice Jim Kitchens upheld the couples' breach of contract claim against their insurer, but "because the [Lisanbys] failed to demonstrate that [USAA] acted in bad faith when it denied their claim, we reverse and render judgment in favor of [USAA] regarding the award of extra-contractual damages for the infliction of emotional distress, attorneys' fees and litigation expenses."

Therefore, the Lisanbys will be getting a total of about $823,000, but not the nearly $600,000 in punitive damages.

The high court maintains that the plaintiff in a case "bears a heavy burden" to prove that an insurer acted in bad faith when denying a claim.

USAA had asked for the trial to be relocated because it felt it could not get a fair trial in Jackson County due to negative publicity in the media and other lawsuits against USAA, including those from Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood and once-prominent attorney Richard "Dickie" Scruggs," who is now serving time in prison for his role in bribing a judge.

The state Supreme Court ruled the judge was correct in denying USAA's request for a change in venue. Also, a mistrial was not warranted, as had been requested by USAA, Judge Kitchens wrote.

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